Thursday, June 21, 2012

Yellow is the Color of the Sun

Yesterday I discovered that a dear friend from high school, the woman who was the maid of honor at my wedding, has been dead for three years.

I met Kim at number 7 of the 8 schools I attended in my 12 years of primary education.  She lived at our second California stop on the tour, but I managed to get myself back to California for a few years of college, so her friendship spanned almost all of my teenage years.  Kim was ballsy and effervescent at the same time, and she would say just about anything that came into her head. I was beginning the brooding phase that would last the next half decade of my life, and I believe if it weren’t for her, may have become a permanent situation.  For those years, until I ran back home to Texas with my tail between my legs, Kim was my family, my sanity, the voice that told me to smile already because everything was going to be all right.

When I got the news, I hadn’t seen Kim in nearly 13 years, not since the day of my wedding. Sam and I went off to our honeymoon, and Kim and her sister went back home to California. We kept in touch for years, though we knew we would probably never see each other again, but as time and distance stacked up against us, the phone calls started drying up.  It happens, I know, and I blame both of us and neither of us.

A few days ago, I was telling Sam a story about Kim that I'm sure he'd heard a dozen times, and I realized that it had been too long since I heard from her.  I looked at her Facebook page and there was a thud like lead bumping around in my chest because the posts were not Kim, bubbling and bumbling her way across the internet.  The posts were her family casting prayers to her in the afterlife, calling to her ghost, chiding her for not being there, not being here anymore.  The posts marked holidays, her birthday, the anniversary of her death.  It's this beautiful, terrible, cathartic, one way conversation just hanging there, waiting for stragglers like me to wander along and realize that she is gone.

And though she has been gone for several years, to me it happened last night. Last night, as I was curling up in bed and loading up Facebook, I lost her.  Last night, I gripped the blanket, white knuckled, saying aloud to no one, "No, it can't be," counting the years on my hand with disbelief that it had really been that long.  Last night, I cried for the loss of Kim, because she was not out there in the world anymore.  I cried for her parents' loss, and her sister's and her daughter's.

I went back into those years, sitting at the coffee shop with Kim, driving to her parents' house on weekends, drinking Midori, listening to music in her boyfriend's apartment.  As I traveled backwards in time, I realized that I was crying, too, for the final passing of an era in my life.  My teenage years were wrapped up in Kim, tethered to her buoyancy.  Without her, I would have been completely, miserably stuck on the ground.  But Kim was infectious, and she lifted me out of my impossible angst, pulled me up with her into the clouds.

With Kim gone, it's as if those years disappeared as well.  She was the witness, the one person who knew those years happened to me, who saw the moments that made me into the person I am today.  She was the one who knew that when I said, "Yellow is the color of the sun," I meant remember the color song? and wasn't that trip the best? and let's not mention the loud talking bra incident.

Until last night, Kim had been frozen for me, as if she had stopped aging and changing the moment I left her world and moved back to Texas.  The last time we spoke, she was apologetic that her life had not unfolded the way she planned it, as if she was worried she had disappointed me.  I told her the truth: she had seen me at the worst moments in my life and never flinched so why should I flinch when she was at hers?

Last night I couldn't help but think of that last conversation when I read her profile.  It said, "I have a rough recent history but that doesn't define who I am.  God's grace is sufficient for me."  And then I saw Kim as I suppose God sees us all, her whole life superimposed on itself, like negatives stacked on top of each other, the light bleeding through them all, making a new picture entirely of the images.  I saw her life not as a linear thing but as compact unit, saw the loveliness of her every moment stacked on all the other moments of her short life.  Her life was not a highlight reel of best and worst moments but a beautiful overlay of all her moments at once, seen in the clarity of hindsight.

It was a vision of life, of the way we must be seen by immortal eyes, that stuck with me today.  I looked at my boys and saw, for the first time, that their lives would also have that overlay someday.  I saw, too, and selfishly hoped it would be true, that more likely they would be the ones around someday to see my life in that cross section view.  One day, every moment of my existence will be visible to them in that lens of finality.  I can only hope that when I am gone, they will see visions as lovely as the yellow sun I saw when I looked over the life of my friend.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Making of a Real Man

A little over seven years ago, the day I found out I was pregnant with Nico, Sam was not entirely sure he was ready to be a father.  I told him I was taking a test and to let me know when it had been three minutes, but less than thirty seconds later I was calling down the hall, "Um, Sam, I think we're about to become parents!"

"No," he shouted back, "It hasn't been three minutes yet!"

Be that as it may, I assured him, the stick had spoken.  At that moment he got up from the couch, walked into the kitchen and started furiously cleaning everything in sight.  It was, to my knowledge, the first time he had ever willingly engaged in any form of cleaning in his life.

These days he can clean puke out of almost any surface while holding one child and keeping a pair of dogs at bay.

When Nico was born, Sam had never changed a diaper.  He changed his first diaper in the hospital, with my mother talking him through it, and for the past 6 plus years, not a day has gone by without him changing at least one. 


When we got married, Sam's idea of cooking was opening a frozen pizza and managing to pull it out of the oven before it burned.  I once asked him to whip up some mac and cheese from a box, and he called me to ask me which cup to use.  I said, "What do you mean.  What do you need a cup for?"  And he answered, "It says to add a quarter cup of milk, but that seems very inaccurate.  Our cups are all different sizes."

These days he can cook anything, and heaven forbid his frugal wife should ask him to forgo the parsley or the basil in a recipe.  It would ruin the dish altogether, he assures me as he's running out the door to pick a last minute cooking "necessity."

There's more, I mean so very much more that I could say about this man, but the overall idea is that he somehow managed to pick up all the really great, inherent strength of being a man and a father without hanging on to all of the machismo crap that society tells people makes a "real" man.  He is not afraid to cook or clean toilets, yet he knows more than anyone I have ever met about military history and world politics.  He teaches the boys to be honest and brave, to view every day as an adventure and treat everyone they meet with respect and kindness.

I am reminded so often that it takes much more strength to be a man like my husband, who defies convention and eschews traditional gender roles, than to be someone who watches his football because all his friends watch football.  You have to be a real man to strap a baby on your chest, to cook couscous for your family, or try to find a changing station in a men's restrom.  For me, the best part about Father's Day is knowing that my boys have a real man for their father, someone who will teach them to be people of character, to work hard, to say what they mean and mean what they say.  And of course, someone who will teach them not to take themselves too seriously because pursuing the charade of status can never compare with seeing someone as they truly are.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Breathing Contentment

Here I am breaking promises already.  I promised myself I would write twice a week.  Even if it wasn’t a masterpiece, I would put something together and just get it out there.

But I have this reflex, this habit of pulling myself in and retreating into silence after periods of particular intensity.  I have always had periods of inspiration and this crazy kind of productivity, where I can’t stop writing and making and doing.  And then, as if I am dried up and there is nothing left to pour out, I become quiet, observant, interested but highly introspective.  It’s like I am a sponge that has been wrung out and is just trying to suck up as much moisture as I can to replace it.

That’s where I’ve found myself this week.

I spent every day last week reading about gender equality in the church in Rachel Held Evans’ series on Mutuality. And I cried and I laughed and I called Sam, asking him, “Did you read this one?”  And we waved our hands and clapped them at the computer, as if it was a rescue plane that had finally found us on this deserted island. 

On Friday, I wrote my own contribution to the discussion, and as I hit publish, I felt instantly exhausted, defeated, afraid.  I felt tired from the weight of so many years of trying to make myself believe something that roiled up in my chest like emphysema, filling my lungs with bile and hate and fear.   And somehow I also felt exhausted from striking the first blow, my arm giving out after the first wave of the sword.  It’s hard pretending, and it’s hard outing yourself, too.

But Friday, even after all that, was just beginning. I had a job interview midday and a party waiting at home to be thrown that night. So, from business suit and selling myself, perched on my chair like a lamb on the altar, trying not to look as scared as I felt, I fled home to change and find the part of me who strings lights and makes spiked punch and laughs with her head thrown back.

And though I started the party feeling like a shirt turned inside out, a certain joyful, peaceful feeling took over me. I did not take a single picture of that party, a celebration of summer inspired by Nico’s desire to mark the end of his first school year. No, I did not fuss or fret or watch the evening through the lens of a camera. I just sighed at the sight of two dozen children running grooves in the grass of our backyard, ate the food we had made, kept my plastic cup full, and talked to the people who came to welcome summer with us.

That night, after the guests were gone and the children in bed, I began to feel like that sponge, all wrung out and with nothing left to give.  "Big day for you," Sam said, and I nodded, already feeling the fog of contemplation slow my tongue.  "Uh huh," I agreed.

On Sunday, my blog was shared with thousands of strangers.  I was included in the conversation about equality in faith and ministry, not just as an observer but as a part of the dialogue, as a voice to be heard in the growing movement. 

On Monday, I sat on the couch and held my baby in my lap. Yes, I know he’s not really a baby, but sometimes when he is tired he still feels like a baby, his body leaning into mine, his diaper making crumply paper sounds when he moves. That night he sat with me, and I cupped his little feet in my hands, feeling his toes flex slightly against the curve of my fingers.

We had been swimming earlier, so he still smelled of chlorine, and his hair was that after-pool soft we folks with baby fine hair get. And I was content, tired and out of words from a day of work followed by an evening of swimming. In that moment, holding him against me, smelling summer on him and knowing that his little foot could still fit in the palm of my hand, I felt as fortified against worry as a castle wall with a mile wide moat around me.

On Wednesday, I got the job. 

So, you see, it's not as if I have nothing to write about.  It's just that I don't always have the words to describe it.  I have nothing to say but “ah” and “thank you thank you” and “love” over and over like a yogi’s meditative mantra. The wordless rhythm of contentment rumbles in my chest, a cat’s purr, not spoken but breathed.

And though, yes, I am breaking promises, you'll have to forgive me just now.  I am in the land of mumbled contentment, on a reconnaissance mission to reclaim the words I have lost to my period of heightened existence.   All the while breathing thank you thank you, ah, love, love you.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Screaming from the Pew

Today's post was inspired by Rachel Held Evans' Week of Mutuality.  From the moment I discovered Rachel's blog, I have felt less alone, as if I can sigh in relief and finally say, "Ah, there are other people like me out there. I knew it!"

I like to say that I came out of the womb a card carrying feminist. Now, technically speaking, that’s not exactly true. For starters, there really is no membership card and, as a newborn, I didn’t actually have enough of a grasp on gender roles to declare myself either way.

No, I wasn’t really born a feminist. Well, not any more than all children are.  Newborns do tend to consider their mothers worthy of endless love and respect, after all.  Maybe what I should say instead is that I failed miserably at getting the innate, universal tendency towards feminism beaten out of me so I don’t ever remember not having it with me.  But there was one defining moment that transformed my inherent tendency towards feminism into the real full blown thing, one moment in time when, though I was too young to have the proper words to name it, the glaring unfairness of inequality became something I could not overlook or reason away.  It was the first of many such experiences, a seed planted that burrowed deep and spread out wide roots that, over the years, have woven themselves into every nook and cranny of my thinking.

I don't remember how old I was exactly, but it was during that era of childhood when adults love to ask children what they want to be when they grow up, hoping to hear something fantastically innocent and frivolous like ballerina or pirate.  I remember that I had been asked that question the same morning in church, and I threw out whatever answer came to my mind at the moment.  Then as I sat in the pew next to my mother and brothers, listening to my father preach about God's love from the pulpit, I suddenly knew what I wanted to be.  Not some childish notion of a career, no fairy princess or astronaut, but what I really wanted to be when I grew up.

I couldn't wait to tell my father what I had decided.  I knew that he believed teaching people about God was the most important job in the world.  So that afternoon, while he was reading in a chair in our living room, I curled up next to him and made my announcement.  "Daddy, guess what?  I figured out what I want to be when I grow up.  I want to be a preacher just like you."

I remember how his face looked as he thought about his answer, like he was arranging the words in his mind before he let them out.  His pause was my first inclination that he wasn't as thrilled as I expected him to be at the announcement that I would be following in his footsteps.  When the words came out, though, they were worse than the silence.  "Well, honey," he said very slowly, "In most churches, women aren't allowed to be pastors.  You could be a children's director or something like that, but not a pastor."

The slight of it was, and is, the twofold rejection.  It wasn't just that my father was telling me that I wasn't suited for his line of work.  It was that God was telling me I wasn't as capable as my own brothers of telling people about Him.  What could be more destructive to the faith of a little girl?

Now, you have to understand that my father is a rare and exceptional man.  Never has he been a stereotype of masculinity.  He is strong and brave and an incredible spiritual leader, but at the same time he is a man for whom service is second nature, a man who has never been afraid to cry, either in front of his family or in the middle of a moving sermon.  More than once I remember him insisting on helping my mother with the laundry or the dishes so they could finish faster and both sit down together and rest after a long day.  He speaks of my mother with a level of love and respect that taught me, from a very young age, that the kind of love that "always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres" does exist. And I just knew intuitively that if that kind of love did exist, then it could be out there for me, too. He taught me that I was smart and talented and tenacious, that I was more than just someone's future wife, that I could be a doctor or a lawyer someday if I wanted to.  I could be anything I put my mind to.

Except, apparently, a pastor.

For years, I believed that a biblical scholar like my father and the many churches who would not accept a woman as a pastor must be right.  After all, they knew the bible much better than I did.  They could lay out every verse that told women to be quiet, to submit, and to stand behind the people God truly intended to use to teach the world about Him.  So, for years, I tried to believe that what God intended for the world was for men to be dominant and women to be submissive, even though in my heart, I could not reconcile that kind of God with one who would also give us verses promising that "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28)

Eventually, the friction of this seeming dichotomy was on the very short list of reasons that I took a break from the church for a decade or so.  It was also the first and most insistent item on my list to reappear when I finally walked back into the doors of a church.  Though I have become quite devoted to my big-hearted neighborhood church in the last few years, the fact that they referenced passages like Colossians 3:18 a robust six times in our first year of attendance has given rise to the fear that the next time I'm told to open my bible to Colossians 3, I might just find myself standing up in the middle of the sermon and screaming, "That's it!  If I hear that passage mentioned one more time, I am out!"  In my imagined version of this tantrum, I also slam my bible closed haughtily, which is kind of funny since my bible these days is an app on my smart phone.

Instead, when the "wives submit" verses pop up on Sunday, I look around me, scanning the pews for other churchgoers who might also be harrumphing and wishing they had a bible to slam. I keep telling myself that my husband and I can't be the only ones who are baffled by the doublethink required to advocate one hierarchical social structure while nonchalantly brushing away another (completely accepted in Paul's day) hierarchical social structure that appears four verses later.

Oh yeah, that part about slaves obeying their masters?  Well, that's easy to explain.  It's not that God thinks we should own slaves now.  But, you know, back then it was common for people to own slaves.  No, we shouldn't reinstate slavery because it's obviously wrong to own another human being, but this verse can still be applicable if you think about it in terms of a boss/employee relationship.

And yet it is apparently unthinkable that perhaps, just perhaps, the same could be true of the verses telling women to submit to their husbands.  It is unthinkable, and downright blasphemy to many folks, to imply that perhaps Paul was just trying to give some advice to alleviate a non-ideal social structure already in place, not prescribe the existing social structure of his day as the ideal to be followed for all time.

Truth is, I don't want to write this, and I certainly don't want to hit publish.  Though it seems glaringly obvious to me that the bible, taken on the whole, weaves a story that decries the idea of any one group raising themselves above another, this is a topic on which I am greatly outnumbered in the Christian community.  Writing this scares me because it has the potential to hurt and enrage many of the people I love dearly, but I believe that not writing this accomplishes the same thing as standing up in favor of gender inequality.  I believe keeping quiet is a tacit agreement that I think God intends men to be dominant and women to be submissive.

Instead, I want to say to anyone who may feel, as I did for years, that you can't be a real Christian unless you buy into the gender inequality line: you are not alone.  I am just down the pew from you, and though I may never get the nerve to jump to my feet and scream ENOUGH, I am going to use my voice in as many ways as I can to remind you that it is not blasphemy to question the modern day application of verses like Colossians 3:18.

It is my hope that one day we will look back on churches using passages like Ephesians 3 to justify the subservience of woman in the same way we now look back on churches using those same passages to justify slavery.  It is my hope that if I have a daughter or granddaughter some day, I will be able to tell her that she can be anything she puts her mind to, no exceptions.  It is my hope that she will be able to inherit a faith that welcomes her openly, equally, seeking to challenge her to live a life of love, humility and service, not because she is a woman, but because she is a Christian.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

School's Out for Summer

Well, we did it.  We successfully got a kid through kindergarten.  Based on that, I think we can go ahead and declare this parenting experiment a success. We are experts.  It is known.

People always tell you how fast these years go.  They tell you to pay attention because you'll blink and your babies will be grown with children of their own.  I'm feeling a bit of that this week.  I mean, I swear it was just yesterday we were walking him in for his first day of school.

Nico was so excited to start school that day, not even a little nervous.  Just bursting with energy.  Couldn't wait to put on his backpack on and carry his own lunch box.  It probably helped that he had been in that school every day the year before to drop his brother off.  Linc started half days at school when he turned three as part of the Preschool Programs for Children with Disabilities program, and Sam and Nico would walk him down the hall to class every day, telling Nico that next year this would be his school, too.

So, when Nico started kindergarten, we had already been through the parental first-day-of-school-trauma, but we had done it with a three year old who was still in diapers and couldn't speak yet.  I guess, given how much more grown up and self sufficient Nico was on his first day, I shouldn't have cried.

But, you see, just five minutes before he had been a newborn baby sleeping in the crook of my arm.  And see, he was my firstborn, and here we were giving him over to someone else to raise for seven hours a day.  And yeah, I cried.  A lot.  Like kind of embarrassingly a lot, judging by the way the Assistant Principal laughed when he saw me sobbing on the way out the door.  "Don't worry," he called after me, "We'll take good care of him!"

And, of course, they did.  Nico came home every day bubbling over with stories of his new friends and his new experiences.  He woke up every morning telling us what his day would hold.  "Today is art," he would say.  Or, "It's fun Friday today!"

He grew bean sprouts and watched chicks hatch.  He learned about the lives of his friends, what they like, what they eat, how many brothers or sisters they have and whether their parents live apart.  Dinner conversations have become, "How was your day?  What did you do, what did you learn?"  And you can bet he tells us in intense, wide-eyed detail what his life was like for the seven hours that day while he was off being a student.

I know it's just kindergarten, but it's also the beginning of his life without us.  The whole thing just reminds me how fast he's growing up.  He's always been strong willed, but this year we have seen that strong temperament manifest itself in something more than just the tendency to throw tantrums when he doesn't get his way.  We watched him become a leader in his class, watched his personality start to cement itself as a string of new challenges, new people, and new choices forced him to decide, little by little, what kind of person he is.

And the person he is becoming, although at times still obstinate and selfish, is increasingly someone I am glad to know.  I think Nico is a person I would like to know even if he wasn't my son.  He's loving and earnest and sensitive.  There are times when he shows such compassion to other people that I cannot believe he is only six.  Sure, there are other times when he acts very much like a self absorbed, unyielding six year old.  But the rest of the time, he is interesting, sweet, even witty.  I am surprised by how funny he is already, not just the elementary school kind of silliness, but downright comedic in a surprisingly sharp kind of way.

And, of course, sometimes he giggles for half an hour over a fart joke. He is still six, after all.

Last week, when we had family in town, we did a tour of some funky local shops.  In one of the vintage stores, several of us ended up standing around a display of used boots waiting for a few stragglers to finish looking around.  Although no one there was really intending to buy a pair of boots, we all kept picking them up and looking them over, half tempted and half bored.

Nico groaned to one of the store employees that he wished he could get some boots, but they were all too big for him.  She said, "Oh no, there are a bunch of children's boots in the back.  See?"

I have no idea where he got the idea that he should have a pair of cowboy boots.  Sam and I are not exactly western style dressers, and he certainly has never seen one of us in a pair of Tony Lamas.  But when he heard that there might be boots in his size, he turned his puppy dog eyes on his father and all but begged to go check it out.  He and Sam disappeared on what I assumed would be a quick recon mission that would end in Sam telling him that we weren't going to shell out good money for some old boots he would never wear.

Boy, was I mistaken.  He tried on every pair of boots in that store that were anywhere near his size until he found a pair that just about fit.  They were a little big, but they were nice boots and in good condition.  Seeing the joy on Nico's face as he pranced around the store in those boots, Sam did what any good father would do.  He sighed and opened his wallet. 

Nico spent his last week in kindergarten wearing those boots every day.  Never did it occur to him that wearing cowboy boots with cargo shorts might look odd.  He will barely take them off to go to bed.  The moment he walked out of the store in those boots, they became his most prized possession.  I, for one, love that story as a bookend to his first year of school.  It's such a mix of classic little boy whimsy and confident, unapologetic individuality.  He is so remarkably, unmistakably coming into his own as a real, three dimensional person.  And although it is baffling to the woman who still feels he should be a babe in arms, it is so exciting as a parent to see flashes of the man he will become.

Congrats on your first year, kiddo!  We couldn't be more proud.